SpaceX cargo capsule reaches International Space Station

Sun Mar 3, 2013 7:30am EST

* One-day delay due to thruster problem

* Carries food, equipment, science experiments

* Return to Earth slated for March 25

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 3 (Reuters) - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station used a robotic arm to pluck a SpaceX cargo capsule from orbit on Sunday and prepared to haul it aboard.

The Dragon capsule, loaded with more than 2,300 pounds (1,043 kg) of science equipment, spare parts, food and supplies, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX is the first private company to make supply runs to the station for NASA and this is its second such mission.

The cargo ship was due to arrive at the station on Saturday, but a problem with its thruster rocket pods developed soon after reaching orbit. Engineers sent commands for Dragon to flip valves and clear any blockage in a pressurization line in an attempt to salvage the mission.

By Friday evening, Dragon had fired its thruster rockets to raise its altitude and begin steering itself to rendezvous with the $100 billion space station, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

The orbital ballet ended at 5:31 a.m. EST/1031 GMT, when station commander Kevin Ford, working from a robotics station inside the outpost, grappled the capsule with the station's crane as the ships sailed over northern Ukraine.

"As they say, it's not where you start but where you finish that counts. You guys really finished this one on the mark," Ford radioed to Dragon's flight control team in Hawthorne, Calif., and NASA's Mission Control in Houston.

"What a fantastic day," Ford said.

The capsule will be anchored to a docking port on the station's Harmony connecting node so astronauts can unload its cargo and then refill it with equipment, trash and science samples to take back to Earth on a trip scheduled for March 25.

Dragon's flight is the second of 12 missions for privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a $1.6 billion NASA contract. Following a successful test flight to the space station in May 2012, SpaceX conducted its first supply run to the orbital outpost in October.

A second firm, Orbital Sciences Corp is due debut its freighter this year.

NASA turned to private companies for delivering supplies to the station following the retirement of its space shuttles in 2011. The agency hopes to buy rides commercially for its astronauts as well beginning in 2017.

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